Just How Stupid is Career Planning?

If you are like me, you were taught the importance of career planning. What we were taught was wrong. Let’s examine why.

I remember sessions in school when we looked at career possibilities and discussed, for those of us who were heading towards what in those days was considered a career, how to craft a successful career. Now in my day only 5% of school leavers went to university, so it was a different world than now. But more recently we sat through sessions at my daughter’s high school that emphasised an early decision on what she wanted to do, so that subjects could be carefully chosen with a view to what was required for university entry for that field. The advice in my day, and my daughter’s, was so wrong for many different reasons. In this article we will look at a few of those and seek a much better alternative.

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

You Have To Be In It To Know It

Ask most high school students what an accountant does all day and you’ll get suggestions about doing math, adding up lots of columns of numbers and maybe spending a lot of time in spreadsheets. Most teachers will think the same and will probably say that you should be good at math for a career as an accountant. And of course they would be wrong. A recent conversation with my accountant is why I have chosen this example. His answer is that to be a good accountant you have to like people and be really good at communication.

While I picked one profession as an example, this is true for most professions where the actual practice of the profession is very different to what people expect to be the case. Sadly school career advisors and university study rarely, if ever, provide a proper introduction to actual life in that career. What this means is that even, say, a high school accounting teacher, if they have never actually worked as an accountant, won’t even be in a position to provide correct advice.

Over a great many years I have seen the sad consequences of this over and over again. I have seen so many students doing the wrong course and even more people disillusioned and burned out in their careers.

It is impossible to properly shape your career if you do not have true clarity about what the career is about, what is involved and what is possible, even if unlikely.

Today, Careers Often Have Quite A Short Life

Careers have always come and gone. But as the pace of change in the world accelerates, so the lifespan of many careers shorten.

The real problem with this is that our thinking about careers is stuck in the days when a career lasted a lifetime. That thinking determines the systems and practices that we put in place around careers. For example, it perhaps makes sense to spend three or four years doing an undergraduate degree, and some large amount of money as well, if it qualifies you for a career that will stretch from your early 20’s until you eventually retire. If you get 40 years out of a 4 year degree then that is a 10% overhead. But if the career only lasts 10 years, is it still worth it?

Perhaps this is one factor that is encouraging the shift to shorter courses. But ultimately that’s not the complete answer. As the pace of change increases, then logically the career longevity will get shorter, requiring ever shorter courses to qualify for them. This will eventually hit limits of practicality.

As careers get shorter, then the qualification period must also get shorter proportionally, but this gets impractical beyond a certain point.

We Are Focused On The Wrong Thing

And now we get to the real issue, all along we have been focused on the wrong thing. We have tied the concept of a career to a particular and narrow definition around a job.

Frankly we started to lose the plot as soon as we started to focus on work. This has been the ruination of the concept of the career, just as it has become the ruination of the university as a place of noble learning. Instead it has made the university somewhere you go to get the piece of paper that enables you to do a particular job. Pure and total stupidity, and such destruction of what was once an amazing institution.

What’s wrong with work, you say? Well nothing really, but for what we are talking about here, this is an issue. Work implies payment and if you spend too long stuck in this way of thinking then you will tend to only do or value activities that provide a reward. This is not only limiting, but also skews things to only being about yourself and what benefits you get.

A term that seems to have disappeared from the common language is avocation. Now an avocation is usually defined as a secondary occupation, apart from one’s main one, and is something that one does purely for the enjoyment of it. And this is getting much closer to the right way of thinking, but we are not quite there yet.

Many people use the term ‘purpose’. They talk about your life’s purpose. Even better than the term itself, it is often broken down into four ingredients:

  • Passion
  • Mastery or Talent
  • Values
  • Mission

Now we are close. The problem I have with the term ‘purpose’ is that it implied that our purpose is something we have a choice over. And I don’t think that is the case.

Your Calling or Trajectory

I prefer the terms calling or trajectory. Your Life’s Calling has a nice ring to it, but might be a little too spiritual or have a religious overtone for some. I think in terms of my Life’s Trajectory.

Trajectory has the right combination of being something that is just there, rather than something you picked. It suggests momentum. It also suggests that there are activities that are aligned with and so contribute positively to the trajectory of your life, and yet others that act against it.

So now let’s take the four purpose ingredients from above and modify them slightly.

The trajectory of your life is made up of:

  • Your passions, and especially the common, deeper passions that link them together
  • Your talents
  • The values and beliefs you have and, more important than the ones you have at any given time, the common thread of values and beliefs that you have over time
  • The missions you set out on

I’ll have much more to say about these in followup articles, so you might like to follow me or subscribe.

Few of us are born with clarity of our life’s trajectory. Rather it emerges over time, and you do need to go looking for it. And you will refine and develop it over time.

Using Your Trajectory

Once you do have some idea of your life’s trajectory you have a wonderful tool for decision making. If you are considering a job, for example, then you can ask yourself whether getting the job will be aligned with and contribute to your trajectory, or act against it (Jade McAndrew-Barlow explores this in Things You Must Consider Before Accepting a Job Offer ).

Let’s continue this discussion later. Be sure to Follow or Subscribe so you don’t miss anything.